In part one of a series of stories RTÉ.ie Journalist Blathnaid Healy travels to the Rift Valley in Kenya to see how bees can improve people's access to food and improve certain crops.
In a nursery of Acacia trees thousands of workers go about their daily business. They seem immune to the scorching sunshine that has left lesions in the earth of the small farm in Kenya’s Rift Valley.
During a prolonged regional drought, the workers’ needs have been few: they have been given water and syrup to keep them going.
But these are not ordinary workers – they are African honey bees.
Husband and wife Amos Kipsang and Margaret Chepkemboi have kept bees on their farm in the small town of Eldama Ravine for the last three years.
Beekeeping was at one time a small part of the couple’s farm. Now, as they wait for the drought to end, it is much more significant.
The beans, maize, millet and sorghum that Amos and Margaret planted in March and April to feed their family have failed, so their savings have been spent to buy food.
In the past year Amos, Margaret and their eight children have become less food secure and more reliant on their bees.
The couple extracts honey and wax from the beehives, and then sell the honey and wax or use them to produce other products like candles or creams.
‘That money I change for food – flour, sugar, whatever I need,’ Amos said.
But the couple, who started with three hives and expanded to 18, did not always see the potential in bees and the enhancements they could make to food budget.
Before he saw that potential, Amos thought of himself as a ‘bee killer’. If bees had set up a hive in one of the trees near his livestock, he would have destroyed it.
It was the training he got from Baraka Agricultural College that changed his outlook.
‘You go, you learn, you are taught,’ Amos said. ‘(It) added value to our lives.’
In Baraka, Amos and Margaret were told they needed to plant trees and flowering plants to provide a cooler and food-rich environment for the bees. (Watch a video of Amos and Margaret)
Because the bees used in African beekeeping are migratory, the environment created in the apiary - where the hives are located - is the glue that keeps them from absconding to a more favourable climate.
‘Without forage there is no beekeeping,’ Amos said.
Creating the right habitat and managing the bees are the most important components of being a good beekeeper, according to Cornelius Kasisi, head of Baraka Agricultural College’s beekeeping programme.
‘Bees can make honey in any type of container so long as it is clean and the environment is conducive for them,’ Cornelius said.
Perched high in the often-overcast hills of the Rift Valley, Baraka teaches farmers techniques in several forms of sustainable agriculture.
In the last few years the faculty has noticed that beekeeping classes have become the most popular courses offered by the college. Farmers either receive funding from different aid agencies to attend the courses or they pay for themselves.
Baraka teaches farmers about basic beekeeping techniques and equipment-making. Farmers learn that they can process the products they get from the bees, or sell the raw material to a middle man. For advanced beekeepers the college offers training in bee multiplication and breeding.
College staff said the rise in the demand for honey - which has led to a hike in the price - and the lower amount of labour needed for beekeeping compared to other types of farm work are the main reasons for the increase in the numbers taking up the discipline.
Most farmers sell their products to their neighbours, supermarkets, big companies or local beer brewers, Cornelius said.
‘Some of the money generated is used to buy foodstuffs to improve food security,’ according to Cornelius. ‘Honey itself is food and it has improved the nutritional status of the families we are working with.’
The products generated from beekeeping can directly provide food for families or they can create a new form of income to buy other staples for the dinner table.
But the role played by bees in food security does not stop there.
Nearby in the flat lowlands of Koibatek, Bernard inspects the sparsely populated rows of fruit trees laden with not-quite-ripened mangoes and papayas on his farm.
Ten yellow cube-shaped boxes lifted off the dry ground on wooden stands help with the fruit he grows.
‘The pollination would not be very effective without the bees,’ he said.
The insects can be heard buzzing around collecting nectar from the fruit trees which is taken back to the hives in the farm’s apiary to make honey.
The benefits of beekeeping are outweighing the risks for Bernard and he has plans to further develop this part of his farm. If he can secure investment, Bernard would like to increase the number of hives and build a special bee house to hold them.
‘We are told the ones in the houses are more comfortable and we will not have the challenge of the moths,’ Bernard said. Moths are one of the pests that can attack and destroy bees. (Watch a video of Bernard)
Plans to expand the number of hives and bees are echoed by the association that Bernard belongs to.
The secretary of the local association, Samson Legat, said he would like every farmer to have at least 50 hives. At that volume, the farmers could potentially use their bees to tap into another source of income – pollination.
Bees have a real commercial value beyond the products they produce.
A 2007 report from the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations says that in African countries insect pollinators are essential for many fruit and vegetable crops, and the demand for pollinators grows as the need for agricultural productivity increases.
The organisation says conservation of pollinators like bees is essential for food security and biodiversity.
It warns that losing pollinators would be inconceivable.
Agricultural economist Dr Steve Wiggins, who has worked in South American and African countries, said keeping bees is ‘rather wonderful both for what it does for plant life and it is a potential income supplement’.
But he cautions against development agencies getting overly excited about it.
‘Everyone keeping bees will not cure poverty, but it plus loads of other things will help.’
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'The Humble Bee' is brought to you in part by the Simon Cumbers Media Challenge Fund